Situated against the Rocky Mountains and connected to the western edge of the agricultural heartland of the U.S., Denver has long had a focus on the wise management of our natural resources. We see millions of tourists each year who are heading the mountains to hike, bike, ski, fish or just relax, and our metro area has grown significantly as many professionals realize the quality of life in the City.
This growth is not new, but is has accelerated, making our commitment to sustainability—particularly the social sustainability of affordability—increasingly challenging. The steps that the metro area is taking to continue this commitment in the face of change are guided in large part by the City’s 2020 Sustainability Goals. These goals encompass targets for City and County operations and metro area communities. The sustainability goals range in focus from land use to water to affordable housing.
Several large-scale projects in Denver exemplify not only the change that is occurring, but also the metro area’s commitment to sustainability. Two of these projects, the National Western Center and the Sun Valley Ecodistrict, are leading the way on a number of innovative district-scale approaches. These two projects—one the redevelopment of a large, historic entertainment venue, and one a project focused on affordable housing—are connected to one another physically by the South Platte River and focus on similar themes of food, district energy, and community engagement.
History of the National Western Stock Show
January 1906 marked the first official National Western Stock Show – a free event held in the Denver Union Stockyards, leveraging this site’s proximity to rail lines, and connecting rural communities to one another and to a growing city. During the following two years, the event was held under a massive 150- x 170-foot tent, but by 1909, the tent was replaced by the National Amphitheater, a building that still stands today. The nearby towns of Globeville and Elyria grew as well, populated by people who worked in the meatpacking plants, stockyards and smelters.
Throughout the years, the Western Stock Show Association added events to its annual Stock Show line up: rodeos, horse shows, concerts, and educational programs – and new facilities to host these events.
Today, the National Western Stock Show runs for three weeks in January, hosting more than 700,000 attendees on a 120-acre site. Exhibitors show a variety of animals, including breeds of cows, horses, sheep, llamas, and pigs, and attendees preview hundreds of events and competitions, in addition to a Western- and agriculture-focused trade show. The National Western Stock Show creates more than $100 million in economic impact annually and draws visitors from across the United States and more than 40 countries.
In 2012, the Western Stock Show Association (WSSA) began re-envisioning existing facilities and programs in an effort to preserve its heritage, while looking to the future. Colorado State University (CSU), the City and County of Denver, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and History Colorado joined WSSA to reimagine the space, with the goal of creating a year-round destination that leverages the legacy and popularity of the National Western Stock Show, but expands the location into a global destination for food and agricultural history and innovation.
In 2015, Denver voters overwhelmingly approved $765 million funding for the project, and the Colorado General Assembly (its state legislature) passed a bi-partisan bill that funds the CSU facilities at the National Western Center.
Opportunity Presented today
The redevelopment of the National Western Complex into a year-round venue with diverse offerings is a massive undertaking and a huge opportunity to implement and test sustainable innovation. The 250-acre project will be overseen by a unique partnership of local government, academic and non-profit entities, which offers an extraordinary opportunity to create a site that is known as a sustainability showcase, particularly for district-scale sustainability.
The site itself is complex, with three rail lines crossing the property, an elevated interstate highway towering over portions of the site, an above-ground 6-foot-tall wastewater pipe that blocks access to the South Platte River, as well as former and current industrial impacts, including a section of a capped Superfund hazardous waste site. The National Western Center is also flanked by three neighborhoods that have felt isolated and have lacked both public and private investment for decades. These historic neighborhoods grew adjacent to heavy industrial uses, and as a result of pollution and lack of access to healthy foods, residents suffer from health issues such as obesity and asthma.
The site is also full of opportunity. The South Platte River acts as the western-most boundary, and the project’s improvements along the South Platte River will increase recreational options for residents and improve the river ecosystem with the goal of achieving positive health and environmental outcomes for generations to come. The addition of commuter rail on the site creates a direct transit stop from Denver’s downtown transit hub, Union Station, with connections to northern Colorado. The surrounding communities hold a rich history with food and agriculture that can be leveraged to tell a collective story of this part of the city.
The partnerships that make up the NWC project also provide unique opportunities. In particular, CSU’s presence at the NWC provides a unique chance to use the site as a living laboratory, both during the redevelopment and long-term. CSU has a team of researchers currently developing immediate and extended research projects to help inform planning, green building, infrastructure, urban ecology disciplines, and they could also develop best practices for future redevelopment projects. The WSSA’s contribution of land and its rich history, as well as its ability to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, mean that CSU, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and History Colorado can offer creative place-based educational programming, paired with Western Stock Show Association agricultural educational outreach.
During the NWC Master Planning process in 2014, the NWC team set ambitious goals for sustainable practices as part of the site. CSU gathered experts in green building, energy, water, waste, health and ecology. This group worked to craft goals that explored “net zero” energy on the site, a “One Water” approach, “net zero” waste opportunities and positive impacts on the South Platte River, while simultaneously integrating educational opportunities into the design and infrastructure of the campus.
At the guidance of CSU’s Institute for the Built Environment, the NWC team took site sustainability to the next level, considering regenerative opportunities on the site. A regenerative model looks beyond merely sustaining the status quo, and asks questions like: “How can we improve the health of visitors and neighbors?” and “Can we generate more energy than we need?” rather than solely working to reduce negative impacts.
Taking a regenerative focus has led to additional creativity. The team recently completed a “One Water” strategy for the entire site, focusing on matching water uses with sources and priorities for water use on the site.
CSU breaks ground on a water building in late 2019 that will focus on water policy, education, research, and innovation. The facility will draw audiences from around the West and the world to discuss challenges and solutions in various aspects of water management, and creates an ideal space for a demonstration of greywater capture and use, research and demonstration of the use of recycled water for irrigation and other uses, and green roof best-practices in an arid climate.
While this CSU building is well-suited for showcasing water activities, other areas of the site may provide ideal space for solar panels and other technology, which will also be key for achieving the NWC regeneration goals, including energy. The Master Plan goals include exploring “net zero” energy (meaning the site generates as much energy as it requires each year), as well as keeping greenhouse gas emissions levels static or decreasing as the site changes.
To set the stage for achieving net zero energy across the NWC site, the project participated in Xcel Energy’s “Partners in Energy” program and a national “Zero Energy District Accelerator” program with the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). (Xcel Energy is the investor-owned utility serving the Denver area.) These technical teams, in collaboration with CSU faculty, determined that maximizing renewable energy and achieving “net zero” on the site is feasible. Achieving net-zero on the NWC campus will rely primarily on three factors:
- Designing energy efficient buildings (all buildings will be LEED Gold or higher),
- Tapping into enormously abundant thermal energy in an on-site main wastewater line called the “Delgany Interceptor”, and
- Using the NWC’s large-scale roofs to generate solar energy.
District heat recovery is particularly critical, innovative, and rare – only currently being used as a net zero approach in a few locations globally, including Vancouver, Oslo, Chicago, and Tokyo. Utilizing the thermal energy from the wastewater pipes to heat and cool the buildings at the National Western Center would decrease the NWC’s energy consumption by 60% annually and allow campus energy demand to be met with 100% renewable sources.
Although the project leverages on-site resources, the approach requires capital investment in district-scale infrastructure, so the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center is working with private-sector partners to finalize a collaborative agreement to design, develop, and finance the effort. “By utilizing resources already on-site, we’ll be able to minimize carbon emissions while developing a responsible and sustainable campus for future generations” Gretchen Hollrah, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center said.
An additional benefit of taking a creative approach to regeneration is collaboration. The City and County of Denver and the regional Metro Wastewater Reclamation District are exploring heat recovery from the Metro sewer pipe, which would pull heat from the pipe to heat the campus and lower the pipe’s effluent temperature, which in turn will improve the health of the South Platte river downstream and save Metro money.
“Investments in water pollution control over the past 50 years have greatly improved the health of our rivers and streams. Now as an industry, we’re beginning to evolve our view of wastewater by considering the possibilities of recovering resources from within it.” said Jim McQuarrie, director of Strategy and Innovation for the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District.
“There is potential to recover thermal energy embedded in millions of gallons of wastewater generated upstream and conveyed through pipes that cross the NWC campus,” he said. “With heat pump technology, megawatts of thermal heat discharged from routine household activities such as washing dishes and taking showers can be intercepted and redirected into a heating loop and then distributed to heat campus buildings.”
Similarly, a collaboration with Denver Water, the independent entity that provides potable water in the Denver metro area, is identifying how best to use their reclaimed water on the site.
The regenerative approach also lends itself to consideration of resiliency. As design of the horizontal infrastructure and buildings progresses, design elements are being incorporated that improve the NWC’s resiliency to things like weather events and climate change. Perhaps even more important is the commitment to flexibility wherever possible in the design of the public spaces and the felicities themselves. This makes the site resilient to changes in technology, consumer or user preferences, market forces, regulation, and more. This flexibility is paramount when considering how to be as regenerative as possible—a building that sits empty is not sustainable or efficient—and ensure we are maximizing the benefit of the public and private investment in the project.
The National Western Center presents another kind of opportunity—the chance to connect groups of people who might not otherwise convene. There are over 700,000 people who come through the site just during the National Western Stock Show in January alone. These visitors come from Denver, but also from across the U.S. and around the world. Farmers and ranchers come to the Stock Show to do business, but also to learn from one another and socialize. Generations of families have grown up attending this event and connecting with each other, in the Yards (and frequently in the Yards Bar and Cattlemen’s Club), essentially extending the festive spirit of the holiday season through January.
With the expansion of the types of facilities and activities at the NWC, particularly with CSU’s focus on showcasing 21st-century food production, we have the chance to have a conversation that brings the NWSS attendees and others together to talk constructively about challenges to sustainable food production, rural economic development, and the ties between our urban cores and rural communities. We have the chance to capture the imagination of children from Denver, who never saw a career for themselves in food, but are now inspired to follow an educational and career path that works on solving global food production challenges through technology. We also have the chance to tell the story of how food is produced, and hear from the producers themselves, helping to bridge the gap between rural and urban, between producer and consumer.
City and County of Denver Goals
As the National Western Center moves into detailed design and construction, the impact of many of the goals outlined in the Master Plan will become increasingly clear. These goals were drafted with the City and County of Denver 2020 Sustainability goals in mind, and with collaboration from staff of its Office of Sustainability, particularly since most of the facilities will be owned by the City. For example, the One Water strategy that is in development will help the City and County to meet its Water Quality goals around the health of the urban waterways, particularly with respect to the South Platte River. Similarly, the LEED strategy that is currently in development will help ensure that City buildings throughout the city hold energy consumption to below 2012 levels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and help the City meet a new goal, recently announced by the Mayor, of getting to 100% renewable energy community-wide by 2030. In addition, the collaboration with the private sector will help enhance private investment and leverage the substantial public investment ($765M) in the NWC.
Many of the goals that were outlined in the NWC Master Plan fall into the operations and programs category, so their implementation is still several years away. In the meantime, CSU and other NWC Partners are launching prototype programs that have an impact on the surrounding community. For example, CSU hosts a pet wellness clinic each year where veterinary students work with volunteer veterinarians to provide free wellness checks and exams to pets of local low-income families. The University of Colorado’s medical school is now also providing health screens for pet owners at the same time. This program is an example of what can be offered once new facilities are built, and fosters relationships while helping to fine-tune the services provided, ensuring facilities are designed to be efficient and tailored to intended uses.
One hallmark of the National Western Center project is collaboration—collaboration across the five founding partners, collaboration between rural and urban stakeholders, collaboration between agencies and utilities, collaboration across disciplines to address global challenges in water, energy, food, health and the environment—and the next steps at the NWC will enhance that collaboration even further by bringing in private sector partners to help achieve our goals. This collaborative spirit is part of Denver’s culture and will continue to carry this project forward as we shift from construction to running programs and events.
Sun Valley EcoDistrict—Energizing a Neglected Denver Neighborhood
The Sun Valley Neighborhood served as a key part of early Denver, connecting the area west of downtown to outlying settlements. It has been home to varied uses since the late 1800’s, with lower Colfax Avenue serving as a main street for this area and providing commercial services for working class families. It has been home to a distinct and vibrant culture over the last 120 years and today is still home to a strong and diverse community. Though small in population, there are over 33 languages spoken in Sun Valley.
As described in the Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan, which addresses a commuter rail station in the Sun Valley neighborhood, “today, people know this part of Denver as a sports venue – home of the Denver Broncos. The area is also frequented by users of the South Platte River Greenway Trail or the Lakewood Gulch trail – primarily bikers, joggers, or tourists experiencing the greenway trails or riding the heritage Platte River Trolley. Just south of the stadium parking lots and west of the South Platte River is the poorest and most isolated neighborhood in the city – remnants of a late 19th century working class neighborhood intertwined with public housing, heavy industry and government services. Further south toward 6th Avenue is Sun Valley’s thriving light industrial district employing thousands of people, few of whom actually live in the neighborhood. In many ways the varied history of the area results in ’multiple Sun Valleys’ working against each other over time – sports venue, neighborhood, infrastructure and industry.”
This neighborhood is about to undergo a significant transformation, due to investments by the Denver Housing Authority (the local public housing authority) and the private sector. To understand better the opportunity and to synthesize a cohesive vision for the neighborhood, The City and County of Denver began the Decatur-Federal Station Area Plan process in 2010. Formal City Council adoption of the plan occurred in 2013. This led to a series of planning efforts that looked to unlock the neighborhood physically while at the same time respecting the stakeholders and residents.
This historically low-income community along the banks of the Platte River is one of the most geographically central neighborhoods in the metro Denver region. It is also home to some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, the majority of whom live in the Sun Valley Homes housing project. Today, 94 percent of the neighborhood’s housing market is subsidized, with only five percent owner-occupied. Surrounding the residential portion of the neighborhood is light industrial and an infrastructure that disconnects residents from opportunities.
With the initiation of neighborhood planning in 2010 and following the completion of the Station Area Plan in 2013, subsequent evaluation has been completed producing a Sun Valley General Development Plan and the Sun Valley Transformation Plan. These efforts provide a foundation and roadmap for investment and physical revitalization over the next decade. The vision for what’s possible has been collectively championed by many stakeholders including the City, Denver Housing Authority (DHA), Sun Valley EcoDistrict Trust and, most importantly, by the residents who live there. The goals and impact of these planning efforts are neighborhood-wide or district-based in scale. The Sun Valley EcoDistrict Trust (SVED) was formed in 2016 to work across property owner lines to maximize the district scale impact and opportunities.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has provided a $30M Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Grant to jumpstart the revitalization and provide a path forward to de-concentrate poverty through mixed-income housing development as well as promote holistic neighborhood transformation. In 2013, the Denver Regional Transportation District (the regional transit agency) opened the Decatur-Federal Light Rail Station in the neighborhood, providing convenient transit access to downtown and an entire neighborhood of opportunities.
As the metro Denver region faces challenges related to a shortage of affordable housing, low-wage job growth that is not keeping pace with rising rents and the displacement of low-income and minority families related to gentrification, Sun Valley has the potential to serve as a new model for how responsible, community focused redevelopment can result in economically-integrated neighborhoods that benefit residents, businesses and the entire city.
Sun Valley will be transformed from a high poverty, high vacancy district with large swaths of surface parking, to a next-generation neighborhood, home to thousands of new residents, hundreds of new jobs and new or enhanced neighborhood services, making it one of the City’s most vibrant mixed-use, transit-serving communities. As a highly leveraged area of investment, Sun Valley has the potential to add 4,500 mixed-income housing units in the immediate neighborhood and surrounding community, which will contribute to reenergizing and revitalizing West Denver in an equitable fashion, improving the livelihood of existing residents while preserving the area’s multicultural identity.
Through a community-based planning process, the neighborhood voice promotes a focus on youth, education, healthy food, jobs, cutting-edge district energy, intentional housing options, safety and cross sector systems integration. The core of the redevelopment is affordable, mixed-income housing. The unit and bedroom totals of Sun Valley Homes, DHA’s public housing property, will be replaced 1-for-1 in mixed-income rental buildings to ensure deep affordability is not lost. Sun Valley Homes residents have a right of first refusal to return as development is completed in phases. In addition, hundreds of units affordable to families up to 60% of the area median income will be created. This approach will result in significantly more affordable housing in Sun Valley than exists today. This approach positions Sun Valley to be an authentic, inclusive and responsible example of neighborhood-scale redevelopment. With such significant level of redevelopment, new streets and infrastructure are required. This investment in infrastructure creates an opportunity to introduce forward thinking design.
District Energy and Infrastructure
District energy is a highly efficient solution to produce and distribute energy at a local scale, allowing for energy efficiency, reduced costs and reduced carbon emissions when compared to conventional building-scale or in-building systems. Foundational considerations of Sun Valley’s district energy program will include: 1) Central plants to generate heating and cooling energy and distribute to buildings throughout the district; 2) Renewable energy that capitalizes on Denver’s higher than average days of sunshine per year with over 300,000 square feet of roof-mounted and ground-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) installations; 3) Off-site solar PV installations to develop larger MW production levels for the neighborhood and other stakeholders as a contracted off-taker; and 4) Centralized district storm water facilities to serve future development while reducing capital cost and operating costs by up to 20 percent.
Through some of the physical conditions found in Sun Valley, there are a few “no-build” zones for vertical structures that create opportunity for other creative options. Measures such geo-exchange and vaulted (below-grade) battery storage are on the drawing board to take advantage of these opportunities where more valuable land would make these options cost prohibitive.
The majority of these systems will be funded through private-sector partners. The proposed redevelopment program in Sun Valley provides enough residential units and commercial square footage to present a viable district-based energy approach and therefore can attract private investment for district energy.
Additional catalytic partners have come alongside this effort to further the conversation on what it takes to achieve the highest level of district efficiency. Enterprise Community
Partners was one of the first entities to come alongside SVED to support efforts in exploring the feasibility of district-based solutions. Their funding support helped launch many of the relationships and studies to date. Another core partner is The EcoDistricts, a non-profit organization with the mission to advance a new model of urban regeneration and community development rooted in a relentless commitment to authentic collaboration and social, economic and ecological innovation. The EcoDistricts helped provide a framework for Sun Valley to explore opportunities and establish district goals.
As with the National Western Center project, the U. S. Department of Energy Better Buildings Zero Energy District Accelerator program provides Sun Valley guidance to discuss both the building and district in unison with the goal of maximize energy efficiency and use renewable energy at a district scale. The Environmental Protection Agency has also stepped in with its Smart Growth program to advance the analysis around building and district energy efficiency with supporting engineering and cost analysis. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in nearby Golden, Colorado has been instrumental in supporting both of these programs and actively works with SVED to move these efforts forward.
This core group of partners has provided support to understand and promote the opportunity of district-based solutions.
Reflections on a district-based approach
Several years ago, when projects incorporated energy efficiency and renewable measures as building based solutions, the industry would herald it as innovative, the lenders would celebrate what they financed, other project partners would claim a victory for real estate development best practices and as developers, all those involved would present at conferences for a year explaining in detail what we “accomplished”. During those years we were able to utilize industry incentives and programs that existed to push and encourage the incorporation of these measures. This lowered payback periods and made the arduous path somewhat less painless.
In recent years, the costs of these same measures have come down significantly and there has been a much broader normalization of efficient buildings. Currently, however, depending on the market, the overall (and unfortunate) high cost of construction has made space for the rebirth of an old hesitancy that sees energy efficiency as a premium cost. In addition, the fact that the entire industry exploded out of the great recession in a race to build as fast as it could before the next slow-down has not fostered a broad platform for a patient innovation dialog. The good news is that lower cost deltas of efficient equipment help preserve a good portion of the efficient choices making efficiency a nearly normal practice today. Along the journey, many developers and design teams have been forever changed and remain resolutely committed to energy efficiency which further bolsters this normalization. Still, when the financing model is requesting solutions to the other half of the conversation–energy innovation over and above efficiency–weakness may appear.
This conversation gives an opening and lends support to the consideration of district-based solutions. If the scale is achievable there is a strong analytical argument to push innovation to a greater campus scale. This is not a new idea. Older cities were born this way. College campuses still achieve this regularly.
The predicament is the coordination of land and facility owners in the absence of a singular ownership model. Both the National Western Center and the Sun Valley EcoDistrict have seized on the opportunity to leverage single ownership or multi-owner coordination, to innovate (e.g., with wastewater heat recovery) rather than just achieve efficiency, and to showcase the outcomes as they emerge. Wherever district-scale approaches are possible, they should be diligently pursued, with the goal of lowering initial construction costs, lowering ongoing operating costs, streamlining systems and maintenance and, in concept and if done correctly, attracting developers.
The National Western Center and Sun Valley EcoDistrict are two of several district-scale developments in the Denver Metro Area, most of which are pursuing some form of innovation in their approach to energy and/or water. These developments showcase the commitment that the Denver metropolitan area has to sustainability, to collaboration with the private sector (where technologies that enable innovation in energy, water, waste, stormwater, smart cities, etc. are generated and need piloting and deployment), and to tracking and evaluating success (particularly with a university as a collaborator). These are the types of projects that make district-scale approaches a viable choice, that can not only normalize sustainable development, but also can reach beyond their district boundaries to inspire it.